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Why This Nonprofit Is Helping Prisoners Vote

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Austin Justice Coalition is addressing a huge gap in the voter-registration system.

By Meagan Leahy, Photo courtesy of Austin Justice Coalition

Chas Moore is improving the lives of some of Austin’s most ignored groups of people. He is dedicated to building economic and social equity, and works with and for disenfranchised people to bring them a better life. To do this, Moore founded an organization as the vehicle to bring advocacy and change to the community.

Austin Justice Coalition is a nonprofit organization supplying tools for marginalized people and people of color to improve their own lives through four key areas of advocacy: education, policy, community empowerment and civic engagement. Using each of these avenues, AJC works to educate and empower one of the most forgotten about and ignored populations in our community: the incarcerated.

#ProjectOrange is an initiative that began in Houston’s Harris County and is now giving a voice to the imprisoned in Travis County. The program’s goal is to get eligible voters who are currently incarcerated registered to vote. There is a population of individuals in the Travis County Correctional Complex who have not been charged or convicted of a crime but have been unable to be released on bail. Many of these individuals are eligible voters but have not registered or voted because of being incarcerated. #ProjectOrange is changing that.

Education is the first step of the process for the inmates, but also for the general population. Because each state in the United States makes its own voter-registration and eligibility laws, there is a lot of misinformation about who is actually eligible to vote. Many people think people who have been convicted of a felony are no longer eligible to vote. However, in Texas, people who have been convicted of a felony are actually eligible to vote once they are considered “off paper,” meaning, they have completed their sentence and parole and/or probation. After that occurs, those individuals’ right to vote is automatically restored.

One volunteer, Hope Doty, had been working on educating and registering people to vote for years before beginning to work with AJC on #ProjectOrange. She gives accounts of individuals who are on the verge of tears when they find out they are, in fact, able to vote.

“I think a lot of folks that are in jail feel they have no control, they have no power anymore,” she says, “and for a lot of them, that’s not the case. They still have that really important power of voting.”

To register eligible inmates to vote, AJC takes groups of volunteers to the Travis County Correctional Complex during inmates’ recreation period. Each volunteer registers one person at a time, helping inmates fill out forms, until they have worked with as many eligible inmates as possible. AJC has hosted several of these registration days and has registered more than 300 incarcerated citizens. The organization will hold one more registration period in September.

Once eligible inmates are registered, AJC and volunteers fill out a ballot by mail application for each inmate. This allows inmates to vote by mail during the early voting period. Ideally, a mobile polling site would be setup for a few hours at the jail, which would be available to guards and staff, as well as inmates. This is something AJC is working toward. Currently, however, voting by mail is the only way for these individuals to vote.

AJC will also work with the League of Women Voters, an organization that registers voters and provides nonpartisan voter-education guides, to arrange for paper voter-education guides to be available to the inmates. This will give the inmates the opportunity to educate themselves about what will be on the upcoming ballot.

The program’s goal is to reach throughout Texas and register as many eligible inmates as possible. However, that may be far off. AJC is taking baby steps to perfect the process in Travis County before moving on to other counties. After this election cycle, the organization will have a better picture of the entire process. AJC and its volunteers hope to register as many eligible inmates as possible before the upcoming election cycle, giving them back that control.

“It’s that whole person aspect of feeling like you’re a part of the community, taking part in your democracy and taking part in the world you live in and affecting your neighborhood and family,” Doty says. “Voting does all of that.”

For more information or to learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit austinjustice.org.

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